Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera Brunello di Montalcino 1998

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Sometimes a wine can be so legendary that it’s reputation exceeds anything it can possibly muster in the glass. The famous DRC – a wine I have not yet been fortunate enough to try – comes to mind. These mythic figments float somewhere in the ether in the wine world, tasted only by a few though lauded by many.

However, wines like this have usually received their vaunted reputations because, at some point, they did something that no one else in the world had ever done. There is the one in a million terroir camp – as I’d classify the fortunate DRC. Then there is the mad genius camp – a place where winemakers like Atonio Gaja reside. Soldera, by most accounts the greatest wine in Tuscany, sits somewhere in the middle.

Greatness in the Vineyard

Gianfranco and Graziella Soldera discovered the Case Basse site in the 1970’s when it was used only by sharecroppers. Since then Soldera has been highly cognizant of the vineyard’s eco-system, spending considerable time tending and fostering a large and diverse ecosystem. But this is no quaint low-tech operations. In fact, several universities actively study and participate in the winemaking at Soldera, researching things like microflora, water stress, and vine diseases.

The small vineyards are managed quite traditionally with vines being pruned short in the winter and a green pruning in the growing season. The winery implements grape thinning and leaf stripping in the fall. Soldera uses all organic fertilization techniques and no chemicals. Of course, the vines are hand harvested.

As with most of the best producers, Gianfranco Soldera has an intense belief in farming over ‘winemaking’. He says:

“Right from the moment the vegetation starts growing again, vineyard management needs the daily presence of the vine grower (I think it is wrong to use the term worker which is typically used for industry; the vine grower knows the land, the plants and the essences) in the vineyard. I would also like to point out that at least 85% of the time necessary for running a wine estate is dedicated to the vineyard, the cellar needing only 15%. It should be explained to young people, who always ask to work in the cellar, that there is no occupational or economic future to be found in the cellar, whereas there will always be a demand for vine growers who know how to take care of the vineyards.”

Greatness In the Cellar

Winemaking is highly traditional at Soldera – natural yeast fermentations, no temperature control and ageing all in large Slavonian oak. Gianfranco believes that the microbial process that takes place during winemaking must be carefully monitored. He believes it is generally not understood well by many producers, but that the biodiversity within indigenous yeasts and microbes are essential to making great wine. Without understanding how they work, however, it is all too easy to make mediocre wine:

“Wines produced with spontaneous fermentation have more complexity of aroma and taste compared to wines made with induced fermentation. Sometimes they are judged as “great”, full of character and personality, “unique” in their type. It is easy, at this point, to attribute the origin of more complexity to the action in conjunction and/or progression with yeasts that are different in terms of species and, within the same species, in terms of breed. With regard to this, a study carried out by myself on the intraspecific genetic variability of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (145 have been isolated from spontaneous fermentation of grape musts from a single vineyard and studied during six consecutive harvests, from 1994 to 1999) has highlighted a striking biodiversity, relative to every single year as well as between different years: from the 145 isolated yeasts examined in all, 50 different profiles of mitochondrial DNA restriction were obtained, 50 breeds out of 145 isolated yeasts!

Next to the possibility of adding to products of particular “greatness”, spontaneous fermentation, because of its intrinsic unpredictability for giving results, may also give rise to products of modest quality. From personal experience, however, these cases are very often ascribable to unhealthy grapes and/or a lack of care in operations in the cellar. In any case, analytical methods available today allow us to monitor the microbiological course of spontaneous wine fermentation in almost real time, making any corrective intervention possible. Unfortunately, only few producers, aware of the importance of microbic ecology of natural vinification, are open and willing to investigation of this kind, so that only a few, in fact very few, are able to know the real story of their product and treasure it.”

The Greatness of Wine

What to say of the wine itself? It is completely harmonious, balanced, elegant, transparent, fruity and youthful after 14 years in the bottle. But how to compare this to all the other good wines out there, and how to understand this wine as legendary rather than merely very very good?

Gianfranco Soldera offers a set of criteria by which to judge wine as great. It must have the following qualities:

harmonious = balanced = well-proportioned (if a product is ill-proportioned it can’t stand the test of time )

elegant = fine

complex = with multiple aroma, flavour and pleasure sensations

natural = healthy, ripe grapes with only the transformation of sugars into alcohol and other substances, thanks to natural indigenous microorganisms

healthy (for both body and mind) = you want to drink that wine again; it gives you a sense of well-being; satisfaction; communion; friendship

a- typical: the possibility to recognize in a wine the microterritory (vineyard) it comes from.

b- unique: a great wine is irreplaceable because it has unique characteristics, because it cannot be replaced, because if another producer made a similar wine, he would certainly keep it and sell it bottled under his own brand name.

c- rare: a great wine is at the top of a pyramid of about 30 billion bottles a year; how many can get to the top? In my experience about 50-60,000 bottles a year.

d- long lived: a great wine must improve for many years and give different sensations through time. Wine is the only natural product made by man that can outlive man.

Wine is only subjectivity; the same bottle can be worth 2,000 euros for one person and less than 50 cents for another.

You may disagree with his perspective, but I think there is a lot of validity to most of his points. I think that the Soldera Brunello matches each and every one of them, and perhaps that is its greatest achievement: realizing an ideal and ambition set by Gianfranco himself.

$250-$350 in the USA


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